Book Review: Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian

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Reviewed by Tim Vivian
Watani Weekly, 10 June 2007
Like the Colossus of Rhodes, St Augustine stands astride Late Antiquity as a wonder of that much-parsed world. (It is striking that Augustine and St Paul are the two saints who have held on to their canonical halos among Protestant scholars and in common parlance.) Sometimes, though, very large monuments cast extremely long, even disproportionate and distorting, shadows that throw other lesser, though still significant, monuments into historical and theological shade. 

Such is the case with Augustine, St John Cassian, and Pelagius. Cassian (c. 360-435), though a saint in the Orthodox East and in the diocese of Marseilles in France (there is a Lac St Cassien in southern France), has often been relegated to an ecclesiastical and scholarly limbo or purgatory where he resides with other important-but-not-quite-orthodox-and-therefore-suspect denizens, most notably the great Origen of Alexandria. For the latter, a misconceived and largely anachronistic “Origenism” and fiercely contentious anti-Origenism landed the great scholar of Alexandria and Caesarea with a thud in the outer darkness; for the former, it was “Pelagianism” or, worse (ironically), the ill-defined and very slippery “semi-Pelagianism,” an 18th-century coinage (though the idea long preceded it) of exceedingly spurious value.

Cassian owes (if that is the right word) his encumbered status not to Augustine but to a much lesser light, Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-463). Prosper wrote his smack down of Cassian’s (in)famous Conference 13, De gratia Dei et libero arbitrio contra Collatorem (On God’s Grace and Free Will, against the Author of the Conferences) around 428-429. As Augustine Casiday notes early on in this outstanding reappraisal of Cassian, “The original case made by Prosper against Cassian remains the most articulate and comprehensive statement of dissatisfaction with Cassian’s theology vis-à-vis Augustine’s writings ever produced” (p. 20). But the chief problem with Prosper’s “influential interpretation” of Cassian, Casiday bluntly argues, is that it is “singularly ill-considered and regrettably influential” (6). The equivalent of Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq on a (thankfully) much smaller theological and scholarly field of battle.

Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian “begins with an evaluation of conventional ideas about Cassian and, finding them seriously flawed, offers the first sustained attempt at re-reading Cassian’s works without deference to the categories of outdated polemics” (vii). That assessment may in fact sell short Columba Stewart’s very fine ++Cassian the Monk++ (1998)—I don’t remember Stewart being in thrall to “outdated polemics”—but it does have the virtue of clearly staking out Casiday’s position which, sometimes, resembles a mama bear vociferously protecting her young. (Full disclosure: Dr Casiday and I recently worked together on a two-volume translation of the works of Mark the Monk [St Vladimir’s, 2007].) After a claim-staking and boundary-busting Introduction, this volume begins with an overview of “Monastic theology in fifth-century southern Gaul’ in chapter one, then moves to “Cassianus contra Pelagianos” [“Cassian against the Pelagians”] (2), “Cassian’s tradition” (3), “Prayer according to Cassian” (4), and concludes with “Into the Holy of Holies: Cassian’s Christology” (5).

As a scholar of early Christian monasticism, especially in ancient and later Coptic Egypt, Cassian’s adopted spiritual homeland, I was especially eager to read Chapter 3, “Cassian’s tradition,” and as one sympathetic to some (I hasten to emphasise) of Pelagius’ teachings vis-à-vis Augustine (who seems overly dour and pessimistic to me), I was especially eager to read Chapter 2, “Cassianus contra Pelagianos.” But before engaging with those chapters, the reader must first acquaint or re-acquaint himself with “Monastic theology in fifth-century southern Gaul,” at 56 pages the book’s longest chapter. Although Casiday correctly states that “some awareness of the lineaments of monastic theology” (17) is important to his study, the chapter (and author) really steps into the ring when Prosper lunges out from his opposite corner. If the devil is often in the details, then the scholarly pugilist is often in—or emerges from—his vocabulary. In the short circuit of seven pages, Casiday uses the following terms for Prosper and his methods: “acrimonious” (21), “paranoid” (22), “fierce” (23), “jejune” (24), “disingenuously” (25), “distorts” (25), “tritely” (25), “doctrinaire” (26), “extremely dubious” (26), “suppress” (27), “distort” (27), “misrepresent” (28), “bad faith” (28), and “smears” (30).

As the above list aptly demonstrates, words matter. One has no problem identifying Casiday’s stance; this book is refreshingly short on scholarly passives, subjunctives, optatives, and, most irksome, docetisms (“it seems”). Following Carlo Tibiletti, Casiday substitutes the term “Provençal Masters” for “Semipelagians,” and he is quite right to do so. It is time to retire that ill-defined and opprobrious term from the scholarly lexicon, along with—of especial interest to Coptic Christians—“Monophysite” (“Miaphysite” is much better), “pagan” (which privileges Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and, for non-European countries such as Egypt, “Medieval” (as shaky a neologism as Iraq is an artificial British political creation, a “neotopism”). Rather than see Augustine and Cassian as enemies, as Prosper, to Cassian’s considerable detriment, wanted—and would like—Casiday believes that the two of them, because they were monks, “had clearly allied concerns” (63). The author’s “revisionist approach” here shows that Cassian, opposite of being in any sense a “Pelagian” or “Semipelagian,” was in fact “heavily involved in efforts to stave off the advance of Pelagian preaching—and that he did so in terms that are comparable (albeit not identical) to those used by Augustine the monk” (71).

As Casiday demonstrates, Cassian’s opposition to Pelagius was, in fact, “vociferous” (72) and he “had contempt for Pelagius’ Christology” (109). “All politics,” as the late Tip O’Neill, U.S. Speaker of the House, famously said, “is local.” The problem for politicians, historians, theologians, and church-goers alike is that they often mistakenly generalise what was originally local into the universal—and universally applicable. Casiday deduces that “it is likely that the concentrated vehemence of Cassian’s refutation is a measured response to a local eruption of objectionable theology”; in other words, not against Augustine himself but against overly-zealous “Augustinians” (118). “None of this,” Casiday nicely concludes Chapter 2, “means that Cassian was an Augustinian. But all of it means that he did not devote his energy to the tasks for which Prosper blasted him—undermining Augustine, introducing Pelagianism by the back door, and generally fomenting disquiet. Instead, Cassian was preoccupied with a different, ascetic task: cultivating a kind of humility inconsistent with Pelagian preaching” (118).

As I said near the outset of this review, I have focused it on Chapters 2 and 3. (Worthy of discussion but omitted in this review is Casiday’s spirited defence of Cassian’s de Incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium [On the Incarnation] in Chapter 5.) I will bring this review to an end, a bit unusually, with a long quotation, a very perceptive observation by Casiday on history and tradition:
“Tradition in this case indicates much more than the unthinking transmission of thoughts and beliefs. Tradition is itself an enterprise that creates and forms historical perspective and it therefore has a complex relationship to history. Even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Cassian thought he was producing a history of the [Egyptian] Nitrian saints, there are nevertheless reasons to think that the tradition he aims to advance is itself not without historical interest. For that reason, I want to insist that, even after we have given appropriate consideration to the historical shortcomings of Cassian’s writings, we cannot therefore write off his works as a serious (if not straightforward) witness to Egyptian monasticism in the last decade or two of the fourth century” (122).

Casiday’s insight here also helps me to close with congratulations: this volume, filled with numerous insights and blessed with graceful and pellucid writing, does not remotely read like the revised doctoral dissertation that it is; it has not only the dissertation’s requisite learning but also the added luxuriousness of a stylist’s careful and challenging though comfortable—and even witty—exposition. I ended with the passage above concerning Cassian’s Conferences because it, like this book, speaks not only to those of us interested in the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt and their valuable and ongoing tradition but to all of us in the Academy and Church who, balanced precariously and excitingly on the faultlines between tradition and history, ponder, teach, practice, and live both with ascetic and reckless abandonment.
The Rev Dr Tim Vivian is assistant professor of religious studies at California State University Bakersfield.
Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007). Pp. xiv + 303. £55.